What do you think of when you hear hiring for diversity? Or, more to the point, what do you think of when you hear diversity?

Diversity, its implications in the workplace and the tech industry’s long time lack of it aren’t new concepts by any means. It’s been widely understood that diversity in the workplace builds stronger teams, enhances office culture and even improves a company’s bottom line. A simple Google search reveals that hiring for diversity has been and still is a hot topic across many industries.

However, many of these articles only get at the first layer of diversity: The physical aspects. Which makes sense on some level, since someone’s race and gender are some of the first things a hiring manager is privy to based during the hiring process. This is perpetuated in the way diversity is reported on: When tech industry diversity reports come out, they usually focus on the physical demographics (male-to-female and racial group ratios) — the visible diversity of a company.

Diversity, Misunderstood

The focus on physical factors when hiring for diversity is the great misunderstanding of many household-name companies and corporations. While diversity in gender and race are absolutely important in the workplace, they’re not the be-all-end-all. Rather, much of the diversity companies are striving for comes from the unseeable: Socioeconomic status, cultural background, physical abilities, learning differences.

Kat Holmes, former Inclusive Design Director at Microsoft and author of Mismatch, describes the importance of these unseeables in an article that shares a story from Brilliant Hire’s work with her team at Microsoft:

I received a phone call one evening from a product leader who was concerned that there were far fewer women using their product than they expected. He was also concerned by the early solutions that teams were proposing to address this issue.

We took a closer look at the patterns of behavior that were happening in the product. We studied the research of Oregon State University professor Margaret Burnett, who has spent more than a decade studying the relationship between gender and software. In her GenderMag Project, Burnett identified a set of facets that consistently lead to differences in how software is used by people identifying as women or men.

One facet in particular stood out to us: how people prefer to learn. Burnett also refers to this as a person’s willingness to tinker with new software. She found a spectrum that spans between two approaches to learning new technology. On one end is a preference to learn through a guided approach, or with the assistance of a human being. On the other end is a high willingness to explore a software interface through trial and error.

The research showed that women distributed relatively evenly across this spectrum. There was a wide range of learning styles that different women used when learning new software. Men, however, clustered heavily toward the end of the spectrum for tinkering and troubleshooting solutions.

This insight helped us reframe the problem. Was it possible that our product favored a particular learning style? We restructured our research to recruit people by learning style and interviewed people from multiple genders, including transgender participants.

In other words, a first-layer demographic (gender) actually serves as a view into second-layer diversity in learning differences. The complexity of Kat and our team’s discovery about deep psychological differences between men and women is a cautionary tale for workplaces: How often do employers give critical thought to the learning differences of people they manage? How often have teams been expected to tackle a problem in a pre-established way without intentional modification to the process to encompass all work styles? It may seem small, but a lack of cognizance about individual team members’ learning and work styles can drive down company diversity.

Diversity, Defined

The definition of a diverse group is all-encompassing: When a group is well-represented in terms of race, ethnicity, age, physical ability, cognitive ability, language, nationality, socioeconomic status, gender, religion and sexual orientation. A company is culturally diverse when it includes the voices and perspectives of people who represent a wide variety of those factors. As such, here at Brilliant Hire, we encourage companies to look at diversity through three lenses: Physical, Cognitive, and Social.

Humans can be excluded from hiring practices through a variety of lenses. (Illustration from Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Team)

Physical diversity is usually the easiest for hiring managers and employers alike to recognize because the differences are most apparent. In this category, we include factors such as race, gender and physical disabilities — though sometimes those disabilities are not as obvious as race and gender and require more intentionality in both the hiring process and in creating an accessible office space/culture. Different races, genders and physical abilities lend well to a diverse office space with varying perspectives on and experiences with problem-solving, culture and accessibility.

Cognitive diversity is harder to pinpoint and achieve because nearly all cognitive differences are non-visible. In this category, we include learning differences (for example, preferences of problem-solving or ways of learning new technologies), focus abilities, and learning disabilities (for example, dyslexia, dysgraphia or ADHD). Remember that people with learning disabilities can perform just as well in a role as those without — but it can be harder for them to show off skills in a traditional interview process.

Social diversity includes both physical factors (such as race and gender) and nonphysical factors (like religion, culture and socioeconomic status). It’s in this category that we often see hiring processes exclude a diverse applicant pool. For example, language or symbols in job descriptions may mean different things to different cultures.

Diversity, Encouraged

The good news is, a simple reframing of the way HR departments and employers think about hiring for diversity can go a long way in building better, more inclusive teams. The first step is to be cognizant that diversity comes by way of physical, cognitive and social lenses. Then, reevaluate hiring processes and team work flows for inclusiveness of cultural, ability-based and learning differences among candidates and employees. Here are three easy ways to accommodate for differences and encourage diversity during the interview process:

  • Give candidates time to think: Oftentimes, interviews ask questions and expect to receive quick and open answers. Accommodate for cultural and cognitive differences by giving candidates time to think quietly before answering if they prefer. By ensuring candidates have 2–3 minutes to process the question and form an answer before discussing, you’ll cater to a wider range of work styles.
  • Let candidates answer questions how they prefer: A great example of where diversity is discouraged is during technical whiteboard interviews, which forces candidates to write out answers on a whiteboard. Both learning and physical differences/disabilities could exclude some candidates from truly showing their abilities in this type of interview (not to mention, code will almost never be written out on a whiteboard during the actual job role). Instead, give candidates the option of typing into a coding editor, writing on paper or writing on the white board.
  • Give candidates a safe space to voice concerns and be prepared to walk them through the process: These are the small things we find oftentimes neglected by hiring managers. For example, if a candidate is flying to the onsite job interview, don’t assume it’s their first time on a plane and make sure to check in about concerns they may have traveling or acquiring transportation to the interview. If a candidate is scheduled to go to dinner with the team, check in with them about dietary restrictions and coach them through voicing those in front of their potential teammates. As a hiring manager and/or a recruiter, you are responsible for managing all of these moving parts to provide the best candidate experience possible.

Inclusive interviewing is not about designing one single way for candidates to show their skills. Instead, aim to provide an experience that takes into account physical, cognitive and social differences. No single interview process is ideal for everyone, and trying to cram circular pegs into square holes will only lead to a lack of company diversity.

If there’s anything to be taken away from this article, it’s that diversity in hiring is incredibly complex and should be treated with intentionality. HR departments, hiring managers and employers alike should be thinking about more than just the physical when it comes to building and retaining diverse teams. But don’t get too caught in the weeds: Reframe your thinking, reevaluate job descriptions and just get started.


Brilliant Hire by SAP provides companies with an innovative way to build diverse and inclusive teams. It offers an efficient, unbiased applicant screening solution powered by a network of experts. With a mission to remove unconscious bias from the hiring process, Brilliant Hire has been trusted by countless talent acquisition professionals to cut down on screening time while ensuring every applicant has an equal chance of moving forward. Check out our blog for more information, or request a demo here.